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Bohn envisions a university without walls

Shane Macomber/ Vail DailyCU's new athletic director Mike Bohn talks about problems facing the school's athletic department in a recent interview at the Vail Daily.
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The handshake is firm, the stare dead-on and the smile sincere.CU’s new athletic director, Mike Bohn, plans on changing a lot of perceptions surrounding the state’s flagship university and its athletic department with that handshake.It’s the reason Bohn, 44, recently stopped by the Vail Daily for an interview. It’s the reason he’s been canvassing the state speaking to rotary clubs, alumni dinners and virtually anyone else who cares to listen about the future of Colorado athletics. “We’re really trying do everything we can to ensure that we’re using these challenges we’ve had to improve our operation,” Bohn said. “Our campaign in athletics is, ‘Colorado Buffaloes: Your Team.’ We recognize that it’s not the president’s. It’s not the athletic director’s. It’s not Gary Barnett’s or Ricardo Patton’s. It’s your team. People are really recognizing now that it’s a great time to unite and to work together.”Bohn was hired last month as Colorado’s fifth athletic director in the wake of a more than three-year scandal that led to the resignations of previous A.D. Dick Tharp, Chancellor Richard Byyny and President Elizabeth Hoffman. The plain-spoken, excitable Bohn grew up in Boulder and played quarterback for Boulder High at Recht Field, just down the hill from the CU campus.While he said there are no quick fixes to the myriad problems the athletic department faces, which include lack of funds, insubstantial or nonexistent facilities, dwindling attendance figures, poor recruiting classes and a haze of controversy, priority No. 1 is to get out into the community to attract support back to the school.In his first month on the job, he has already raised more than $1 million of the $3.7 million he hopes to bring in by Sept. 1. He’s also initiated the “Ralphie’s Kids Roundup,” securing donations for 1,000 season tickets to be doled out to kids around the state for Buffs home football games.

Bohn doesn’t plan on being a one-man community speaking tour. He wants his coaches and his athletes to get out and shake as many hands as they can as well. If they don’t, Bohn said, then maybe they don’t belong at Colorado.”We have to be more transparent. We have to be more engaging,” he said. “We need to reach out and help educate people about the great economic impact of the institution and the great things that are happening there. There is so much other information out there. Most of it is inaccurate and a lot of it is carrying the day. … There’s no shortage of issues that we need to face or address that can’t be fixed if we unite and everyone works together as a team.”

Bohn faced similar issues at San Diego State, where he was athletic director for 18 months before taking the Colorado job. The school’s football team was the focal point of an investigation that exposed recruiting improprieties, including underage drinking and outings to strip clubs, which led to NCAA probation. “We had 79 audit points we needed to clear up (at San Diego State),” he said. “Being through a board review, it was a similar opportunity to improve our operation and to engage more people and get them to understand certain issues that we were involved with. That’s clearly what we want to try and do.”Bohn also faced financial shortfalls and difficulty attracting recruits at San Diego State and in his first stint as an A.D. at Idaho, where he served from 1998-2003. “They’re all very similar,” he said. “Many of the other Big 12 institutions are facing similar challenges. Virtually every Division 1-A football program in the country is facing financial challenges. I believe it’s almost 90 percent right now are not profitable.”Jenny Bramer, an associate athletic director who worked under Bohn at San Diego State, said Bohn will bring accountability to CU. “The approach he took here was to make people start regaining trust and build a climate that had energy in it and that people felt proud to come into work each day,” Bramer said. “When the newspapers and people in the community were beating down San Diego State, he brought back a sense of pride. It’s pretty easy to get excited about whatever in the world he’s talking about.”Bohn believes one of the biggest things CU needs is momentum. By generating excitement around the state, he said, that will help attendance numbers which will in turn attract better recruits. Attracting better recruits will lead to better teams, which will attract even more fans and more funds.The other sticking point is an attention to touting the athletic department as an integral part of the university – not an island unto itself.Part of Tharp’s undoing was the perception of an exclusive, country-club mentality surrounding the department.”We’ve got to inspire people to know that if they help support scholarships, then obviously that helps the rest of the institution as well,” he said. “There’s a win-win, a collaboration that has to exist that maybe we haven’t done a very good job with in athletics. When you have adversity, maybe you close ranks a little bit. The president and others talk about an institution without walls. That’s pretty good advice.”

Bohn said his passion for athletics stems from growing up in a family where playing sports was a big priority.His mom was a P.E. teacher. He competed in three sports in high school and two in college, playing baseball and football at Kansas. He spent a year as a grad assistant in football before going to Ohio University for a masters in sports administration.As an athletic director, he sees sports being one of the most positive aspects of the college experience – whether it’s big-time Division I football or intramural basketball.Everyone can learn lessons from competition, he said.”Having the opportunity to be a student-athlete and to be a graduate assistant provided me with a good understanding of the mosaic of college athletics,” he said. “Hopefully, I can utilize those experiences to help us improve.”The handshake is one of the ways Bohn plans to bring CU back from its slide. And, it’s not just a hearty handshake for glad-handing donors and state leaders. It’s also a high-five for CU athletes and fans.”His biggest strength to me is that the student athletes know who he is,” Bramer said. “He will walk down the hall and ask them, ‘Have you been to class today?’ He’s part of their lives. So often, athletic directors are at golfing events or with boosters. You don’t see that person. To me, that’s his greatest strength is the relationship that he had with the athletes in addition to our coaches. He has that same level of energy with every single person he meets.”Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at npeterson@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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